Emily Wilson’s Odyssey

Wilson's OdysseyI picked up Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey. It’s quickly become my favorite translation, alongside Mandelbaum’s. For years, Mandelbaum’s translation was my favorite given his mastery of blank verse and his gift for language and imagery. There are many translators who can translate the original’s content, but rarely the original’s poetry. I can’t be bothered with free verse translations. To translate a poem without translating its formal structure is to do half the work. Homer’s dactylic hexameters are part of the original poem’s language.

Not only does Wilson translate the story but, like Mandelbaum, she translates Homer’s dactylic hexameter into the iambic pentameter of blank verse. Her poetic gifts are of a different order than Mandelbaum’s. Her imagery is limpid and her ductile blank verse makes the Odyssey read as though it happened yesterday.  In doing so she manages what relatively few modern metrists seem able to manage: She brings to blank verse a modern pace and vernacular that doesn’t dilute the integrity of its line. Too many modern poets, ears dulled by free verse, can’t seem to write blank verse without watering it down to a kind of accentual-syllabic prose. There’s more to blank verse than counting syllables. The best practitioners strike a balance between syntax, rhetoric and line ending.

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy.
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered on the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.

So begins Wilson’s translation.  By comparison, Mandelbaum’s:

Muse, tell me of the man of many wiles,
the man who wandered many paths of exile
after he sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
He saw the cities—mapped the minds—of many;
and on the sea, his spirit suffered every
adversity—to keep his life intact,
to bring his comrades back. In that last task,
his will was firm and fast, and yet he failed:
he could not save his comrades: Fools, they foiled
themselves; they ate the oxen of the Sun,
the herd of Hélios Hypérion;
the lord of light required their transgression—
he took away the day of their return.

Muse, tell us of these matters. Daughter of Zeus,
my starting point is any point you choose.

First to notice is that Wilson’s opening is 11 lines whereas Mandelbaum’s is 15. Wilson’s translation, the entirety of her book, has the same number of lines as Homer’s. Wilson writes that she “chose to write within this difficult constraint because any translation without such limitations will tend to be longer than the original, and I wanted a narrative pace that could match its stride to Homer’s nimble gallop.” Getting back Mandelbaum: While there may be a more classical beauty to Mandelbaum’s blank verse—poetic phrases like “man of many wiles” and “mapped their minds” lend poetic density to his translation—Wilson’s verse has a more pellucid pace possessed of its own poetic advantages. Next is Fitzgerald’s much looser blank verse:

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all the ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.

······························He saw the townlands
and learned the minds of many distant men,
and weathered many bitter nights and days
in his deep heart at sea, while he fought only
to save his life, to bring his shipmates home.
But not by will or valor could he save them
for their own recklessness destroyed them all—
children and fools, they killed and feasted on
the cattle of Lord Hêlios, the Sun,
and he who moves all day through heaven
took from their eyes the dawn of their return.

Of these adventures, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
tell us in our time, lift the great song again.

Seventeen lines for Fitzgerald. The line “took from their eyes the dawn of their return” is a truly beautiful line—real poetry. Fitzgerald’s tone, to me, is that of an epic recitation, mainly due to the heightening of syntactic inversions—something which Wilson avoids.  Next is Chapman’s Homer, the inspiration for Keats’s famous sonnet On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. Chapman was a contemporary of Shakespeare:

The man, O Muse, informe, that many a way
Wound with his wisedome to his wished stay;
That wanderd wondrous farre when He the towne
Of scared Troy had sackt and shiverd downe.
The cities of a world of nations
With all their manners, mindes and fashions,
He saw and knew; at Sea felt many woes,
Much care sustained, to save from overthrowes
Himselfe and friends in their retreate from home.
But so their fates he could not overcome
Though much he thirsted it. O men unwise,
They perished by their own impieties,
That in their hunger’s rapine would not shunne
The Oxen of the loftie-going Sunne,
Who therefore from their eyes the day bereft
Of safe returne. These acts, in some part left,
Tell us, as others, deified seed of Jove.

Chapman translated Homer’s verse into open heroic couplets (or riding couplets). Pope would later translate Homer’s Odyssey (or, scandalously, parts of it) into the preferred, and highly formal, closed heroic couplet of the Restoration.

I’ve never studied classical Greek or Latin, so I can’t speak to the literal fidelity of the translations, but reading other sources, one gathers that Homer’s text is, to quote another reviewer, “a hodgepodge of dialects and vocabulary”. Wilson comments on this, writing that Homer’s style is often:

“not ‘noble’: the language is not colloquial, and it avoids obscenity, but it is not bombastic or grandiloquent. The notion that Homeric epic must be rendered in grand, ornate, rhetorically elevated English has been with us since the time of Alexander Pope. It is past time, I believe, to reject this assumption. Homer’s language is markedly rhythmical, but it is not difficult or ostentatious.”

It’s not Wilson alone who makes this claim, and so one is tempted to think that Wilson’s translation is closer, in spirit, to the original than any translation like Pope’s, or a free verse translation like Fagels’s which, though said to be the most faithful, abrogates that claim by its failure to translate the original’s meter.

Perhaps the most notable fact of Wilson’s translation is that hers is the first by a woman into English.  You might, and as I did, question how that matters, but I’d recommend you read Wilson’s article in The New Yorker, A Translator’s Reckoning With the Women of the Odyssey, to grasp the subtle, and not so subtle, ways in which a translation can radically affect a reader’s perception. From the article:

After Odysseus slaughters her suitors, he tells Telemachus to kill the female slaves who have slept with them. Contemporary translators and commentators often present the massacre of these women as if it were quite ordinary, and entirely justified. The murdered slaves are routinely described in contemporary American English translations as “disobedient maids,” and are labeled as “sluts” or “whores”—a level of verbal abuse that finds absolutely no analogue in the Greek. The killing of these abused slaves (who are usually referred to, euphemistically, as “servants” or “maids”) is often described as if it were unquestionably ethical. The study guide SparkNotes describes these women as “disloyal women servants” who must be “executed,” while CliffsNotes calls them “maidservants” who were “disloyal,” and claims that their murder has a “macabre beauty.” In the poem’s original language, Telemachus refers to them only with hai, the feminine article—“those female people who . . . slept beside the suitors.” In my translation, I call them “these girls,” and hope to convey the scene in both its gruesome inhumanity and its pathos: “their heads all in a row, / were strung up with the noose around their necks / to make their death an agony. They gasped, / feet twitching for a while, but not for long.”

I’ve extensively quoted this paragraph for a reason. I was so moved by Wilson’s translation, and her reasons for it, that I took to writing some poetry of my own—a kind of response. I’ll append the poem in a post immediately following this one, but the affect of Wilson’s translation is worth reiterating. Odysseus is no longer elevated by the nobility of a language that makes him a sort of mythical being beyond the reach of sympathy or condemnation. And the girls with whom Odysseus interacts are not defined as “maids” or “servants”, somehow removed from sympathy by their appellation.  They are girls, no different in fears, hopes or desires than the girls reading about them thousands of years later. In a sense, Wilson removes the Odyssey from antiquities. Odysseus is less a hero than a man who could be heroic, loyal, and cruelly vengeful.

24 responses

  1. Pingback: Ithaca « PoemShape

    • Agreed. The first time I read the Odyssey was on a bus traveling from Hanover, New Hampshire to New York City—I was 15. I couldn’t now imagine a better way to read the Oddysey. Every once in a while we read a book in the perfect place and time.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wilson’s attempt reads rather drab, particularly next to Fitzgerald’s. Not a striking line in the selection here quoted. I don’t know what interest there is in poetry written in such direct, uninteresting language.
    Fitzgerald’s is not without flaw–“of contending” is certainly imperfect–however he hits the right note time and time again. “After he plundered the stronghold / on the proud height of Troy” is especially nice.


    • The only essay I wrote in college that was of any interest or value was on the Oratorical Style of Tolkien and LeGuin’s high fantasy, or the “high mimetic mode”. Click on the link, as I think you’ll find it interesting. Fitzgerald translates the Odyssey into the high mimetic mode, or the oratorical style (as I call it), which I think is what you’re picking up on. There’s a lot more hyperbaton, for instance, in Fitzgerald’s writing. The use of these rhetorical figures in his translation gives the language a more elevated, heroic or “noble” feel. From what I can gather, that mode doesn’t seem to reflect Homer’s original. It does, however, reflect the precedent set by Milton’s Paradise Lost. So, in a sense, you could say that Fitzgerald is translating the Odyssey in the spirit of Paradise Lost.

      And having written all that, just want to add that there’s nothing wrong with preferring Fitzgerald’s translation. Don’t mean to give that impression.

      Wilson’s translation is written in the low mimetic mode, but only to a degree, because she’s still writing blank verse. But I think that’s what you’re noticing when you write that her style is “drab”. Wilson forgoes the rhetoric of oratory.

      Interestingly, when I was younger I would have sided with you in preferring Fitzgerald. But somehow I’ve really come to enjoy the (if deceptive) simplicity and transparency produced by Wilson’s translation. There’s a lightness and beauty to her moments of poetry that doesn’t feel as though it belongs to the translator. And again, I’m not saying my tastes are more mature or superior to yours, just sharing how my own tastes have changed. In the realm of high fantasy, I still prefer Tolkien and Le Guin (see the essay above).


    • It is not in the discarding of meter alone that we have brought about the passing of poetry. If we are to seperate poetry from prose only in meter, brevity, and such devices already present in contemporary prose–such as non-sequitors–well, no wonder it is dying. The real art in poetry is found elsewhere.

      I find it to be no coincidence poetry began to fade from revelance and prestige at the very time poetry discarded what you call the oratorical mode in favor of the common vernacular and syntax of daily speech. I’m rather certain Wordsworth had not thought of this degradation when he spoke of the common language of men.

      I do not have the time presently to refute the distinction between “high” and “low” modes, but this seperation lends itself to an interesting connection between nearly all postmodern arts: the celebration of the mediocre.

      I cannot speak for the language found in Homer’s original, though my reading of literal translations has lead me to believe it could not aptly titled, such as this new piece, The Odyssey for Children; Unabridged. However his language may have compared to that of everyday speech, the piece is translated into English blank verse, thus must inevitably interact with the English canon. Going back even further–much further–than Milton, we find little–if anything–written in what you call the “low mimetic mode.” To write thusly, for the poet to seperate himself from the entirety of our canon prior to the unfortunate fashions of postmodernism, cannot be more than absurdity. The language of poetry makes poetry, more even than meter, and contemporary poets will continue to go unread by all but those attempting to scour these meager attempts for lumps to add, using the imagery of Stevens, to their own trash heap.

      The common man goes to poetry elevation. To withdraw this from our offerings in our obsessive purge of our heritage, in our worship of the mediocre, is to withdraw ourselves from not only relevance, but from all true want.


    • I wrote an epigram for you:
      “Low Mimetic Mode”
      Such has been said, and t’this I must concede,
      A measureless poem’s music of time writ free;
      Yet a verse of innoble tone I read
      As music lacking even melody.


    • That would be cool if you resurrected the epigram. :) You won’t do it though, writing as if you never made it out of the Restoration. You will, at some point, have to live in the 21st century; and find a way to do it without surrendering your aesthetic principles. And that, after all, is the trick.


    • Interesting. So, if I were to limit the pool of potential words in the English language to, essentially, those used conversationally; strip all syntax also not of the same; drop elision; and, generally, remove all aspects which seperate poetry from prose . . . whatever is left of my work may be read. That’s some trick.

      I’m here to revive the thing, not stomp upon the shattered glass.


    • Well, no, that’s not the trick. The trick is to create the illusion, through artifice, that you haven’t used any artifice at all. That’s hard to do. The modern poet generally doesn’t try, and neither (from the spectrum’s opposite) does your epigram.


    • If you read the introduction to her translation, she actually has very interesting things to say about the reasons she translated this line as she did. I can’t tell from your comment whether you’re being sarcastic or dismissive. In any case, I’d encourage you to Google other reviews. Below is a passage from a NYT review:


    • This Odyssey and the other pieces of its ilk will be utterly forgotten, and likely very soon. No one wants to read it, other than those wanting to be known as poets, and professors. It is laughable to nearly everyone. The appeals to authority and the intellectualized attempts at vindication are equally laughable.


    • Maybe it’s stating the obvious, but the Odyssey has been around, in print form, for over two millennium, and possibly another as oral tradition. So it’s already had about 3,000 years to be forgotten. And hasn’t been. Good luck with that prediction of yours.


    • [Respondent’s original post deleted.] Okay. You’re done here until you have something substantive to add. Blurting your opinion of another’s work with all the insight of a four year old isn’t substantive.


    • By the way, you should browse the Guest Book and scroll toward the bottom of the comments. Look for Sheathsword Nazaritus. I think you and he might share a common aesthetic. If you like his efforts, you should, by all means, contact him. [Edit] Never mind. After his repeatedly insulting me, I’ve removed his posts. You’re welcome to host his work.


    • You make a number of very general assertions, too general, really, to build on. That is, I neither agree nor disagree. Yes, the “real” art of poetry is more than meter. And yes, “the language of poetry makes poetry”.

      As to whether poets before Milton used the “low mimetic mode”, there were any number of Elizabethan playwright and then, arguably, there’s most of Chaucer—the Canterbury Tales. I’d argue that Wilson’s translation is more in the spirit of Chaucer than Milton—and I very much like Chaucer. So, I guess I’d have to disagree with your estimation of Wilson’s translation.


  3. That looks like a lovely, crisp translation from Wilson.

    I have to say, in the extract you quoted, I think Mandelbaum overuses alliteration. I recently finished his translation of Ovid, which I really enjoyed, but in that work he does, in my opinion, hit the wrong note on occasion with his overuse of rhyme.

    Patrick, can you recommend a translation of The Iliad?


    • I have to confess that I’ve never read the Iliad from beginning to end, only dipped in and out of it. I feel the tragedy of war too deeply to really enjoy it. I do know that Wilson is planning a translation of it, and if it’s anything like her translation of the Odyssey, it might well be among the very best. I like her ability to fuse the vernacular with blank verse. That said, Pope’s translation is considered, by most, not only the finest translation of the Iliad but the finest English translation period. I have his translation on my shelf. I’ve read very good things about Carol Alexander’s translation, especially that she doesn’t read Homer’s Iliad as a glorification of war (or allow herself to translate the events as in any way “heroic” but treats Homer’s text as a refutation of war). That alone makes me favor her translation more so than Fitzgerald or Lattimore. What I like less is the free verse. It’s for that reason that I’m looking forward to Wilson’s translation. I think she’ll bring a similar sensibility, but am especially interested to see if she uses blank verse.


    • Excellent, thank you. If what you’ve said is true, it seems scandalous that Pope’s translation isn’t even in print (at least, not in the UK). I’ll see if I can track down a second-hand copy. Nice to hear that Wilson is planning a translation.

      Have you read Pope’s translation of The Odyssey? (though, of course, he only actually wrote half of it himself!). How does it compare to Wilson’s?


  4. I (finally!) got a copy of this translation. I’ve only read the Intro and a few favorite passages, but I’m thinking at some point I’ll make a project out of it, read it alongside the Fagels, which is the version I first learned it on.


    • Good. If you feel like sharing your impressions, please do. Hers is my favorite translation, I think. The combination of blank verse and simplicity and directness of diction very much appeals to me.


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